Does software waste energy?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

(continues from Does Software Pollute?)

Does software waste energy?

Of course! Actually, this is the second big way in which software pollutes: not only when a computer is manufactured or thrown away, but also during normal usage. Electricity (that is, money) which enters a computer becomes heat. Which we usually pump away with other electricity (that is, money) to run air conditioners and fans.

The consequences are so serious that in September 2006 Google, the main Internet search engine, publicly called for a more efficient design for computer power supplies. The reason? The fact that, adopting such supplies in 100 million desktop PC’s running eight hours a day, it will be possible “to save 40 billion kilowatt hours over three years, or more than 5 USD billion at California’s energy rates”.

Even in a single household, the energy and money flying out the windows due to careless choice and usage of computers and software programs can amount to hundreds of dollars each year. Some years ago this problem was mainly with processors and traditional monitors, now it also comes from video cards.

Some tests performed in July 2005 by a computer specialized website show that a medium range desktop computer could cost 158 USD per year of electricity by just being left turned on non stop. Working or playing with such a computer every now and then could raise that cost to 230 USD per year! Note that these numbers do not include the cost of cooling the room where the computer is generating heat and the fact that computer fans, the most expensive ones excepted, are also pretty noisy.

It is true that now, at least in the specialized press, there is much more attention than five years ago to “performance per watt” that is to how much real work one gets done for each dollar spent on electricity. In spite of this, many people and businesses still continue (or are forced) to pollute by using much more electric power than they actually need for computing.

How to fight this waste

Turn it off

Simple things first. If computers are really so much better than ten years ago, how come they take almost the same (long) time to fire up? No wonder, then, that many people leave their computer on all the time. However, keeping a computer powered on when you don’t really need it “just because”, is as smart as parking your car in the driveway and leaving it on the whole night since it doesn’t bother you or your neighbors. It’s stupid, even if it looks very cool on a website or computer forum, to boast that you are so good at choosing and configuring software that you can keep it running for weeks, even if it is actually used only a few hours each day.

In 2005 an analysis performed by the staff of Britain’s Pc Pro magazine revealed that a 50-person organization could shave 5,000 pounds off its annual electricity bill by switching computers off before leaving the office. Of course, “if it’s unused, turn it off” applies to everything electric, not just computers. Still in Britain, the Environment Minister himself pointed out in the same year that “Britons waste the equivalent of around two power stations' worth of electricity each year” by leaving TV sets and other gadgets on standby.

Apart from energy saving, nothing is safer for your files than a switched off computer. If you do have to keep it on and connected to the Internet 24/7, OK, no problem. Just pay the price, that is learn and practice the basics of computer security or pay somebody to do it for you. In all other cases, turn it off as soon as you don’t need it running, or at least turn off the modem. Staying on and online is a very stupid and irresponsible thing to do if you have no actual need to do it. Switching off, or at least disconnecting any unused computer from the Internet means that, besides your own data, you will be protecting all the other Internet users. The reason is that you will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, attacks on them from your computer, in case it is compromised some day.